According to intrepid polymath Hussein Chalayan, we’re living in an era driven by a homespun sense of gumption, of amateur-energy, where ‘everyone feels like it’s their right to do anything they want without worrying about not having the skills.’ He channelled this can-do spirit back in February at his autumn/winter 2020 women’s show, standing at the side of the bare stage, performing tracks live from a synthy EP entitled Dreamtracks he produced with S’Express’s Mark Moore and Big Audio Dynamite’s Dan Donovan. ‘I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. The actuality of an event is like a curtain hanging in front of you and the audience so, you’re protected,’ Chalayan says.
The collection was influenced by the animist beliefs observed by Aboriginal Australians who create ‘song lines’ walking across the land, translating their tracks into music. Chalayan had the idea to create melodies expressing his own movements to and from his London studio before being introduced to Moore and Donovan by a mutual friend. Both had never worked with a designer in this way and were impressed by Chalayan’s sincerity of intent. Ahead of meeting them, he’d borrowed a neighbour’s keyboard and recorded melodies to accompany his lyrics on GarageBand. ‘He was very embarrassed to play them to us at first,’ Moore says, ‘but what was refreshing is it reminded me of making my first record, back when I didn’t know the rules. It brought me back to a space I never want to stray too far away from, ripping up the rule book rather than getting too caught in certain traps of professionalism.’
That sense of unknowing was edifying for all. ‘It’s a very bold and interesting thing to do,’ Donovan says. ‘There’s a language to making music but Hussein was very willing to learn it. As a professional musician, I’m constrained by the rules but he wasn’t – it was an amazing collaboration because one of us would pull it one way and someone else would pull it another. Hussein was always asking questions about the emotional content of the music, the lyrics, what are they saying? What is the emotion here? That was a really good thing.’ In Apathy Chalayan speaks about being in a disembodied state and the psychology of feeling isolated; It Is What It Is explores rootlessness and how we may project our own mood onto the faces of strangers in a crowd. Part protest, part trance, the lyrics have taken on a new pathos in a world stirring after months under lockdown.
Readings of Chalayan’s clothes are often moderated through his own esoteric acts of bravery. A/W 2020 marks the fourth time he has participated in one of his shows. In 2003 he played in a band alongside Michael Clark, Cerith Wyn Evans and Susan Stenger during his spring/summer presentation. For S/S 2010 he compered the show in French and for S/S 2012, he appeared as a waiter serving glasses of champagne. That same year, Chalayan was commissioned by Britain Creates to work on a project with the artist Gavin Turk. The result was 4 Minute Mile – a limited edition vinyl record on which he recites quotes from an interview with Turk, laid over the pounding of running feet and the sound of breathing.
The tactility of sound is what makes Chalayan tick. ‘Making Dreamtracks was so satisfying because it wasn’t about having a good voice or a bad voice. I didn’t see it like ‘music’ I thought of it as an idea – it was what it was. I’m excited by music because it’s the most immediate visceral medium, much more than anything visual. It goes right in.’